Internet for Medical Info

The Internet for Medical Information About Cancer: Help or Hindrance?

Scott C. Matthews, M.D., Alvaro Camacho, M.D., Paul J. Mills, Ph.D. and Joel E. Dimsdale, M.D.

From the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego. Address reprint requests to Dr. Matthews, 727 Sapphire St. #106, San Diego, CA 92109; scmatthews@ucsd.edu (e-mail).

Objective: The authors tested a strategy for screening Internet sites to identify those that provide scientifically accurate information regarding complementary/alternative medicine treatments commonly used by cancer patients.

Method: Separate Internet searches were conducted for three complementary/alternative medicine treatments: floressence, amalaki, and selenium. Sites (N=194) were assessed according to four criteria: availability of online purchasing, inclusion of patient testimonials, description of the treatment as a "cancer cure," and description of the treatment as "having no side effects."

The presence of any of these criteria was considered a "red flag" denoting questionable scientific accuracy of the site. Sites were categorized based on the number of red flags. MEDLINE searches were performed and peer-reviewed literature used to determine the scientific accuracy of sites.

Results: Over 90% of the sites for floressence and amalaki had at least one red flag. In these searches, sites with no red flags provided some scientifically accurate information, while sites with red flags provided a large amount of vague and inaccurate information. Less than one-quarter of sites for selenium had at least one red flag, and sites in this search generally provided scientifically accurate information, regardless of the number of red flags.

Conclusions: There is a staggering amount of medical misinformation on the Internet. For cancer treatments that have not been rigorously studied, the red flag criteria offer a rapid way of screening Internet sites for likely scientific accuracy. It may be advisable for patients to avoid sites with one or more red flags.

Psychosomatics 44:100-103, April 2003

Ann's NOTE: A friend sent this article and asked me what I thought:

Thanks for providing this.

Cancer 'cure' is a definite problem.

We only link to sites that also offer educational information if they sell a product. Sometimes these sites are the way to get that product as there is no other.

Selenium is relatively well studied, especially as compared to Floressence, which is actually a proprietary product from a Canadian company.

I do not know what amalaki is, so it too is probably proprietary. Funny choice actually.

Ann F.

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